A post on faith and questioning deserves a little background as to why I decided to write it.
I have a job evaluating survey data at BYU, which sometimes means reading through heaps of open responses from the survey participants. Recently we did a survey asking about people’s struggles with different aspects of faith. I won’t get into details about it, but what hit me most was seeing how many people felt like they had no one that they could talk to when questions came up. They feared disappointing their family, making their friends uncomfortable, or being perceived differently due to their questioning. That made me sad, since most people’s questions were quite reasonable, something that most of us struggle through at some point in our lives, and that we should have some level of comfort talking about as we help each other through our mortal lives.
So I want to talk a little about the act of questioning in the context of faith based matters.
Having Questions is Not a Sin, Nor Does it Mean You’re Going Apostate
Quite the opposite in fact. I would contend that having questions is part of the process of progression in this life. First, consider this popular scripture in Isaiah 28:10:
For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
Or, for a little more exposition, we can turn to 2 Nephi 28:30:
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for hey shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall by taken away even that which they have.
I share those scriptures to illustrate the point that God does not expect us to know and understand everything all at once. While we still have a lack of understanding, it’s inevitable for us to have questions.
For me, having questions have eventually brought me closer to God. Like Enos, my prayers have been more fervent when I have had questions. Take a look at part of Enos’ experience in Enos 1:3-4:
…the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart. And my soul hungered; and I kneeled before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.
The rest of Enos’ account continues to illustrate how questions can intensify prayer and bring us extremely close to our Heavenly Father. But questions don’t just focus our prayers, but can focus our scripture study and church attendance as well. Joseph Smith struggled very consciously with the question about which church God would have him join for over two years, and during that time he worked hard to attend the different meetings and study the Bible. After he read James 1:5 in the midst of his searching, he described his feelings in Joseph Smith–History 1:12:
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did;
In my limited experience, the scriptures that have hit me even remotely like that scripture hit Joseph were the ones that came as clear answers to questions. I have certainly been inspired about things I had not given thought to before, but never as poignant as when I search the scriptures out for a specific item. And as Joseph, questions force me to rely on God, just as James 1:5 tells us:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upraideth not; and it shall be given him.
Questions have a greater purpose than providing motivation to draw closer to God. Questions also enable us to have sufficient agency to choose God. Think about it; if there was no question about the existence of God one way or the other, there would be no way to make the choice between God and anything else. 2 Nephi chapter 2 is chock-full of this idea, but we’ll look at verse 16:
Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.
If only one option was enticing, there would be no choice. As such, we will encounter things that provide evidence and motivation to believe in God and His gospel, and evidences that have the potential to persuade us against Him. That is where you get to choose.
When I was on my mission, a general authority (I don’t remember who) came and talked to all of us. One of his best quotes from the day was that “there will always be a logical crisis looming so long as faith is required.” Faith is still required everyone. I guess we can try to tackle the question of “why is faith required?” another day.
We Should Avoid the Traps that Turn Questioning to Doubt
Although we should not be too afraid of questions, such fear is not without reason. Many of us have seen a friend or loved one choose against faith after questioning. The May 1988 edition of the Liahona had a nice article on questioning from Sasha WIilliam Kwapinski (find it here). She asserts that the key to staying good while asking questions is to do so with an honest heart. Here’s a clip from her message:
What is the difference between honest and dishonest questioning? Honest questioning seeks true answers. It motivates the questioner to obtain a more complete understanding of the truth. The person with honest questions is sincerely seeking and promoting knowledge. Dishonest questioning, however, seeks to perpetuate itself. Motivated by fault finding and hardness of heart, the dishonest person battles against understanding rather than for it. He soon moves from a state of uncertainty to a state of doubt, distrust, and perhaps even antagonism toward the idea or object of his uncertainty.
So we should worry about the questions that are designed to justify or rationalize desires or ideas clearly contrary to God’s way. People that ask questions for the sole purpose of tearing down an idea, person, or doctrine are not really seeking truth, but seeking justification and reinforcement of their own preferences. This probably stems from pride.
There are plenty of examples of this from the scripture too. One of the more obvious ones comes from Laman and Lemuel in 1 Nephi 3:31:
And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, year, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?
Most of us would look at the first question–“How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands?”–and be a bit unbelieving. How could anyone ask such a thing? Especially since they had just gotten done seeing and getting chastised by an angel. Regardless, those that want to resist can turn to questions to try to justify themselves.
Perhaps an example by parable would be useful. Doctrine and Covenants 101:43-62 gives a parable of servants that were commanded to build some fortifications around a vineyard. Instead of getting the job done, the men started questioning the orders in verses 47-49:
…they began to say among themselves: And what need hath my lord of this tower?…What need hath my lord of this tower, seeing it is a time of peace? Might not this money be given to the exchangers?
As a result, they got slothful, didn’t finish the fortifications, and they got totally ransacked. This was a pretty stark example of using questions to justify slothfulness, something warned against in a talk in the October 2001 General Conference by H. Ross Workman (find it here). Humans are unfortunately good at finding excuses, so we need to constantly check ourselves and make sure we stay humble enough to ask questions honestly.
We Shouldn’t Assume that Questioners Stand on Evil Ground
One of my big points in writing this is to promote a healthy response to people with questions. I think we will all be there at some point, probably multiple times, and it seems that many people don’t feel like they have safe places to go to search for answers. That doesn’t make me happy, and I think everyone should have somewhere to be able to ask their questions and get help, even if the help they get isn’t a straight, easy answer.
Elder Jefferey R. Holland spoke of this beautifully in the April 2013 General Conference in his talk entitled “Lord, I Believe” (find it here). Of the many great one-liners and phrases in the talk, I think this is appropriate to share:
belief is a precious word, an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for ‘only believing.’
It’s true for him, and for us. When people start asking hard questions, things that seem highly troubling or problematic, let’s not treat such people poorly or with fear. We need to acknowledge that we won’t simply get quick, easy answers to everything, but that we get things line upon line according to our readiness, and willingness, as well as God’s wisdom to give us. I hope that everyone can find friends or family with whom they can talk about the deep and important things in their lives as they struggle in prayer, scripture, and the spirit to receive personal revelation on the answer.
I am grateful for the questions I have had and the results they have brought me. I am glad that others helped guide me in my journey. I wish for all to know how important the gospel message is and how powerful it can be in each person’s life. God is our Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to return to Him.
Afterthought: A Question of My Own
Some of you might have thoughts on this topic, so I want to put it out there. Cognitive biases are a real thing, and I think a common idea that gets tossed around among people that don’t believe in God is that believers are simply confirming their own biases. Even the recipe for success requires some sort of stance for or against faith before the faith can be further built.
For example, we have Ether 12:6:
…I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.
From that scripture, it seems that we need to choose faith before we get evidences or helps to choose faith. What is supposed to start that loop?
Perhaps we can get faith just by doing the things taught, even if we do so by happy accident. This seems to be intimated in John 7:17:
If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.
But what makes someone try to do one will or the other? And is testing out teachings really the best method of finding God? I mean, I don’t think I need to try the teachings of acid-dropping hippies to know that I don’t want to join-in.
The latter half of Alma 32 seems to provide some hints, such as in verse 27:
…even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
So I suppose a desire to believe could get us started in the loop. But where does that desire come from? I have conjectured that maybe that’s where the true decision point lies between choosing God or not. Do we really desire to return to His presence? Would we really choose Him over anything else? Is that the big point of this life? To really find out what we desire and will act on?
But then where do our desires come from? God created us, and that presumably instilled us with a disposition and a set of desires. I assume that God didn’t simply create some people automatically destined to be discarded (seems like a bit of a waste of a portion of eternity), so where does everything fit?
If that string of questions was uncomfortable for you, then I’m glad you read the rest of the post. Yes, I have those questions and I don’t know the answers, but I am able to trust that I will eventually. I have plenty of evidence showing me the truthfulness of the gospel. I also have evidences that suggest that an eternity doesn’t exist. But the choice is mine, and although I don’t know everything, I can still push forward having chosen faith.
Keep seeking truth.